Anyone looking to last Tuesday’s elections as the harbinger of things to come can draw several lessons from the bipartisan results across the Eastern seaboard. Quite simply, Tuesday was the sequel to the 2008 “Change” election – and elected officials in Washington would do well to pay attention to voters in New York, New Jersey and Virginia, whose message resonated loud and clear.
Markets may love Washington gridlock and a laissez-faire government attitude but the message spanning from upstate New York to southern Virginia was very different. Voters were angry that the change they voted overwhelmingly for a year ago has not come to pass. There is widespread anger at the perception that taxpayers continue to bail out Wall Street while Congress continues to dithers on real financial reform. There is widespread anger that more and more people have lost their jobs while the stimulus package has failed to take more immediate hold. There is widespread anger that COBRA benefits have run out for hundreds of thousands of people and yet health care reform continues to be endlessly debated.
The four big races on Tuesday were a mixed partisan bag but thematically, there was a “throw the bums out” fury that permeated each one.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg created his own $100 million campaign stimulus package and barely beat his vastly underfunded challenger for a third term. In New Jersey, former Goldman Sachs Chairman Jon Corzine lost his gubernatorial re-election to a Republican challenger whose only message was that he wasn’t Jon Corzine. In Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell beat Democrat Creigh Deeds as voters rejected four more years of same-party rule in Richmond. And in upstate New York, Democrat Bill Owens beat Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in a district Democrats have not won in generations.
Each of these elections was parochial and each had little to do with the issues being so hotly debated in Washington. Yet the message was overwhelmingly clear: it’s still time for a change and change has not come quickly or tangibly enough.
The lesson for the president and Democrats in Congress is not that they have been too quick to reform but that they have not acted quickly enough. Obama remains popular in New York, New Jersey and Virginia but voters are no longer content with high-flying rhetoric. Health care reform has been debated ad nauseum and yet not one extra person has been insured as a result. The stimulus package was passed earlier this year and yet is has not taken hold quickly enough. Financial reform has been subject to hearing upon hearing and yet the taxpayer funded bailouts continue even as there has been no serious effort to break up systemically risky banks.
In fairness, the legislative process was not designed to move quickly. Yet if this week’s election results are any indication, change is what voters demanded a year ago and enough change is still not what they have tangibly felt a year later. There is a genuinely populist anger out there towards those who – either because they are on Wall Street or because they work in Washington – ignore the urgency of now.
Faster and more urgent government action on issues ranging from financial reform to health care reform won’t make those who trade on government gridlock happy. But in the long term, the grinding pace of government action will only stoke voters’ anger. Incumbents in both parties cannot afford for 2010 to be yet another “Change” election.
Julie Roginsky is a CNBC contributor who has extensive experience in government, politics and public relations on both the federal and state levels including serving as the Washington communications director for former Senator Jon Corzine.